Main Thrust of Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Has Begun

Ukraine appears to have launched the main thrust of its counteroffensive. The next few weeks will likely determine whether the counteroffensive succeeds or fails.

How We Got Here

Since Kyiv began its counteroffensive in early June, it has sought to advance in several directions. In the east, the Ukrainian military has made incremental gains near Bakhmut, most notably on the city’s southern flank. In southern Ukraine, forces from the 9th Army Corps have sought to advance along a broad front comprising two primary axes. The first is the area near Velyka Novosilka, located at the junction of the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions. The second axis is the area south of Orikhiv in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

The latter is where Ukraine concentrated its main effort, led by the newly formed 47th Mechanized Brigade, equipped with U.S.-provided Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. Kyiv’s forces seek to push southward to Tokmak and then Melitopol, severing the so-called “land bridge” connecting Russia to Crimea. Even getting within tube artillery range of Melitopol, the Russian military’s main hub in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, could seriously disrupt Russian logistics in the south.

Meanwhile, Russia has launched a localized offensive along the Kreminna-Svatove-Kupyansk line in eastern Ukraine. Moscow may hope this push will relieve pressure elsewhere — much as the earlier battle for Bakhmut eased Ukrainian pressure on the Svatove-Kreminna line during the winter. Russian forces have made some modest advances. But the Russian military likely lacks sufficient offensive potential for more than tactical gains. And its offensive here could deprive Moscow of troops and materiel needed elsewhere.

Ukraine’s Strategy of Attrition

In the south, Ukraine has liberated a handful of towns but has generally struggled to advance against dug-in Russian forces. Dense minefields, which the Russians continually regenerate, including with remote-mining systems, have posed a particular challenge. Even if they do not disable Ukrainian vehicles, Russian mines at least force the attackers to slow down, and they are easily spotted by Russian drones while advancing over the region’s flat, open terrain. This leaves Ukrainian forces vulnerable to artillery fire, loitering munitions, and anti-tank guided missiles launched by ground crews and rotary aviation.

For their part, the Ukrainians have struggled to conduct combined-arms operations at scale. Ukrainian units lack the requisite training and experience for such operations, and they are short on breaching equipment and other key enablers. After losing a significant number of vehicles during their initial mechanized assaults, Kyiv’s forces shifted to a more familiar, attritional approach: Ukrainian artillery bombards Russian positions, then small teams of sappers and dismounted infantry attempt to inch forward. This has earned Ukraine some modest gains while allowing it to husband its Western-donated vehicles.

To prevent Ukraine’s higher-than-expected artillery shell consumption from causing the counteroffensive to culminate prematurely, Washington granted Kyiv’s longstanding requests for DPICM cluster munitions. Ukraine will likely now have enough ammunition to sustain it at least through the summer.

Kyiv bet that it could attrite Russian forces enough to eventually enable a breakthrough. Both sides have probably taken significant losses, although gauging the relative rates and impact of attrition is difficult through open sources. Ukraine appears to be significantly outpacing the Russians in their counter-battery duel, leveraging the superior precision and (for tube artillery) range of its Western-donated artillery systems.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has sought to degrade Russian logistics and command and control through periodic strikes deep in the Russian rear. But although it has struck some notable targets, Ukraine’s efforts do not appear to have achieved a crippling effect. Kyiv no doubt hopes it will get some help from dysfunction within Russia’s military leadership, including the recent sacking of the commander of Russia’s 58th Combined Arms Army, the main formation defending in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

10th Army Corps Enters the Fray

The coming weeks will tell whether Ukraine’s strategy of attrition has succeeded in enervating the Russian defense. On Wednesday, two Pentagon officials told The New York Times that Ukraine had launched the main thrust of its counteroffensive, sending thousands of additional troops into battle, many of them trained and equipped by the United States and its allies. “This is the big test,” said one senior U.S. official. Kyiv reportedly told Washington that the push, if successful, could take one to three weeks.

The Melitopol direction apparently remains the main effort, as Ukrainian officials reportedly indicated to Washington. On Wednesday, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) spokesman said Ukraine “resumed intensive offensive actions” south of Orikhiv, conducting “a massive attack with the forces of three battalions, reinforced by tanks.” He claimed that units from Russia’s 810th Naval Infantry Brigade and 71st Motor Rifle Regiment repulsed the attack.

Geolocated video footage indicates Ukraine is concentrating its efforts near the town of Robotyne, which anchors Russia’s first defensive line on the Orikhiv-Tokmak highway. Kyiv’s forces appear to have made some gains while also suffering significant vehicle losses. The Ukrainians seem to be trying to bypass Robotyne to the east near Verbove, where they may have reached Russia’s main defensive line as of Thursday.

Kyiv has likely begun to commit significant portions of its 10th Army Corps, perhaps because units from the 9th Corps were running out of steam. In the Orikhiv sector, the Russian MoD spokesman said the attacking units came from Ukrainian “strategic reserve brigades.” Rybar, a Russian Telegram channel run by a former MoD press officer, claimed Ukraine had committed forces from its 116th, 117th, and 118th mechanized brigades near Robotyne and elsewhere in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. A local Russian-installed official similarly alleged Ukraine had committed elements of the 116th and 118th brigades near Robotyne. Those three units comprise a third of the nine newly formed brigades trained and equipped by the West.

In the Velyka Novosilka sector, Kyiv appears to have introduced its newly formed 38th Marine Brigade in recent weeks. Ukraine probably retook the town of Staromaiors’ke by Thursday, although that settlement — like most of the others Ukraine has liberated — was taken by preexisting units rather than newly formed ones. Ukrainian forces remain around 10 kilometers from Russia’s main defensive line in this sector.

On Thursday, Ukrainian officials denied having committed reserve units, insisting the brigades already in the fight were still working to breach Russian defensive lines. But a U.S. official confirmed Ukraine has begun committing forces from the 10th Corps, caveating that it was not certain whether all its units had entered battle. CNN cited a U.S. official who said that while some units remain in reserve, Ukraine has now committed the “main bulk” of its forces set aside for the counteroffensive.

Open-source information indicates the 116th, 117th, and 118th brigades had indeed recently deployed to Zaporizhzhia Oblast. But which, if any, have actually joined the fight remains uncertain. The Russian MoD has yet to mention those brigades in its daily reports, although it did claim on Friday to have destroyed a 10th Army Corps command post near Mala Tokmachka, southeast of Orikhiv. The MoD spokesman said Ukraine conducted further attacks on Friday, but using forces from the 47th Mechanized Brigade, reinforced by Western-donated tanks. A Ukrainian source asserted on Thursday that troops from the 118th Brigade were attacking near Robotyne, but this remains unconfirmed.

If those three units have been introduced, Kyiv will have committed the vast majority of its at least 19 mechanized infantry, marine, and air assault brigades formed for the counteroffensive, including eight of the nine trained and equipped by the West. If and when Ukraine breaches Russia’s main defensive line, it will need to have sufficient forces in reserve to exploit that breakthrough and breach Russia’s fallback lines, assuming Russian troops manage to reposition effectively. Committing too much of the force now risks running out of steam later.

Kyiv’s counteroffensive appears to be entering its decisive phase. Whatever the outcome, it will not end the war. But it will shape the conflict’s trajectory.

John Hardie is the deputy director of FDD’s Russia Program and a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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